Transl.: Original Intent

Fri Dec 29 20:11:25 UTC 1995

re: W.O`Flaherty/Doniger`s RV, JB, Manu translations:


Finally, since there have been no takers, I revert to the (initially, 
some weeks ago)  proposed discussion of the problem of 
`intranslatability` of words such as dharma/rta, hari/niila   etc. This 
was at the bottom of some of the comments though the problem has not been 
addressed as such. In her Manu, for example, D. (as she says, insisted 
upon by her collaborator B.K. Smith) translates dharma by a variety of 
words, from duty, and religion, to merit and manner), but she 
consistently translates brahmana as `priest` and ksatriya as `ruler`.

This reopens up an old question that has been discussed since the 1850`s 
by Roth/Boethlingk, Bergaigne and in this century especially by Geldner, 
Lueders/Thieme and K. Hoffmann: should we translate a Skt. word  with a 
variety of Engl. (etc.) words or just by one word which comes closest to 
the meaning of the Skt. word? 

For example, a brahmana is not always a priest nor a ksatriya always a  
ruler... and hari is, e.g. the color of leaves in the spring when first 
budding (yellowish-greenish-brownish). There is no single Engl. (etc.) 
word for this.
The problem is well known (Jpn. aoi `dark green/blue`: such as traffic 
lights... or  Hjelmslef on Danish `grey/black`). How more difficult to 
pin down concepts such as Skt. dharma or Vedic rta... (more in the 
forthc. HOS volume on translation).

Color designations illuminate the case and allow for an easier approach. 
One could measure the frequency of the light reflected from aoi- or 
hari-colored objects and say, with precision, that this color is in the 
range of so and so many cycles (Hz) and therefore corresponds to engl. x 
or y. Yet, a translator into Engl. has to decide whether a traffic light 
is blue or green... This already provides an idea of how much cultural 
information (realia) goes into each translation (note: the last straw 
case!) and this is, other than frequently neglected in Skt. classes,  a 
large part of our job. 

Dharma or rta are not so easy. Just as in case of hari, we have to 
investigate the (all!) contexts, in other words, we have to get a very 
good idea of the field of meaning (noematic aggregates) that the word 
encompasses. If possible we choose the English word that completely or 
almost completely overlaps with the noematic aggregates expressed by the 
Skt. word. That this is not always possible is known to any translator 
and that is precisely why I chose the pi = 3.14159165... example (when I 
last looked and not 3.15... as printed on the net), and I did so not out 
of an `over-zealous concern for scientific precision`. For,  philology, 
properly understood, tries to approach, with *increasing precision* over 
the decades (setbacks, such as the one criticized here, negclected),  the 
correct representation, as far as possible (or necessary) in the context. 
But we also know that - for a variety  of reasons - that this can only 
partially, if largely, be achieved. This exercise, too, is a dialectic 
process, and it is in constant development.

In her Manu translation D. has chosen Paul Thieme`s approach (without 
mentioning the century old discussion after Bergaigne) of selecting the 
word that comes closest to the meaning of the Skt. one. But her choice 
has not always been correct or felicitous  (brahmana, ksatriya,  or pala 
`straw` for a weight of 1.33 ounces/ 37.76 grams, etc.) On the other  
hand, dharma has received a host of translations, listed in the index. 
Yet, a reader of the Engl. text of Manu will never know that `Manu` is 
speaking about dharma. One has to reconstruct this when reading the book, 
by discovering the Engl. word `duty` (etc.) under `dharma` in the 
index...  It would have be better to translate idiomatically but also to 
add dharma each time in parentheses.


Which brings us to the meaning of the text as such. Above, I have used 
the term `original intent`. This is a category that has been guiding 
translators since Sanskrit became better known in the west. It may be 
that 19th cent. scholars imposed  many of their own categories on the 
texts (as do we, inadvertently) but even they were eager to find out the 
*original* meaning of a word, (AND its development), or of a text. *That* 
is why they did not blindly accept the interpretation of medieval Indian 
commentators of the Vedas who are almost as distant from the Vedic texts 
as the academic Vedic specialists then and now. 

In sum, though much has been said in defense of the three translations 
criticized earlier, -- they remain grammatically incorrect. Therefore 
they do not represent the function (the noematic aggregates) of the 
grammatical category in question, they cannot represent the `meaning` of 
that category, -- and consequently, they do not convey what the original 
text represented to its listeners (later: readers). The *original intent* 
of the text is not captured. 

(Note that I am not talking of the later, Epic, classical, medieval etc., 
perception of these texts or of the history of their understanding, -- a 
legitimate undertaking, but one different from the aims of the three 
translations criticized).

Therefore, with regard both to `grammatically correct` translation, the 
translation of `difficult words` and of original intent, I still stand 
uncorrected and remain unconvinced.

ity alam!


            durjanasya ca sarpasya varam sarpo na durjanah |

            sarpo dazati kaalena durjanas tu pade-pade    ||


Michael Witzel                               Department of Sanskrit
Wales Professor of Sanskrit                  and Indian Studies
Chair, Committee on South Asian Studies      53 Church Street
Harvard University                           Cambridge MA 02138, USA

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